Archive for the ‘ Africana/ Black Studies ’ Category

Annotation: Sianne Ngai’s “Animatedness” (2005)

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Ngai, Sianne. “Animatedness.” Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. 89-125. Print.

In this essay Ngai asserts that stop-motion animation technology captures the ambiguous nature of human agency in the Fordist era, which she describes as “animatedness.” She particularly explores how animatedness, as a “seemingly neutral state of ‘being moved’” has been ‘twisted into the image of the overemotional racialized subject, abetting his or her construction as unusually receptive to external control” (91). Ngai argues, “to be ‘animated’ in American culture is to be racialized in some way” (95). She notes how African Americans have been popularly represented in literature and various forms of media as overly, excessively emotional. Ngai particularly calls attention to how “animatedness” as an emotional or physical response becomes racialized, corporeally attached to the visual stereotype of the African American body. She asserts that while Asian Americans seem to fall at the opposite end of the spectrum, popularly depicted as unfeeling and excessively unemotional, they are still clearly racialized for their lack of animation.

Ngai discusses the productivity of “animatedness” as a theoretical frame because the term recalls the “definitions of ‘animate’ and ‘animated’” ranging from “biological existence (‘endowed with life or the qualities of life: ALIVE”), to socially positive emotional qualities (‘lively,’ ‘full of vigor and spirit,’ ‘zest’), and finally to the historically specific mode of screen representation (‘made in the form of an animated cartoon’)” (94-95). Ngai therefore demonstrates how “animatedness” links organic life to emotional states and machine technologies.

She suggests that these connections are made even more explicit through the concept of automaziation Rey Chow presents in her essay “Postmodern Automatons.” Chow describes automatization as a condition where “one’s body and voice [is] controlled by an invisible other,” particularly reveals itself “the moment the body is made into the object of a gaze; being animated thus entails ‘becoming a spectacle whose ‘aesthetic’ power increases with one’s increasing awkwardness and helplessness’” (99). In her own essay Ngai attempts to answer Chow’s “question of how to turn automatization into autonomy and independence” (99). She asserts that while “animatedness” connotes the emotional and physical constrictions of mechanical, automatic assembly line labor, it also alludes to the potential for spontaneous, unrestricted and unexpected affective and bodily movement.

In her essay Ngai goes on to analyze a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the “narrator suddenly finds himself part of a larger audience watching a black doll puppeteered by Tod Clifton, a Harlem community leader and activist he has admired” (111). Ngai asserts that in this scene Clifton’s ventriloquism and manipulation of the doll forces his body and voice to perform unnatural actions, thereby highlighting his own automatization. Even as he animates the black doll, he is also animated by invisible, external forces. Ngai therefore suggests that one ambiguous means through which automatized human beings can exert their agency in the Fordist era is to call attention to and essentially make a spectacle of their own automatization.

She finally concludes her essay with a discussion of The PJs, “the first prime-time program in American television history to feature a completely non-white, non-middle-class, and non-live-action cast, as well as the first to depict its characters in foamation, a three-dimensional, stop-motion animation technique” (102-103). Ngai asserts that The PJs foamation dolls are automatized by technicians who physically manipulate them into appropriate positions for camera shots and by the human actors who ventriloquize their voices. Despite their illusion of wholeness on the television screen, the dolls are dissected and pieced together. Yet Ngai notes that as different mouths are continually put on and taken off of the dolls, the mouth sometimes “slides a bit from its initial position,” which the directors refer to as “‘slippery mouth’ syndrome” (116). Ngai reads this effect as uncanny movements, where the mouths “assum[e] a liveliness that is distinct from the ‘life’ given to them by the animators and that exceeds their design and control” (117). She asserts that this “unaccounted-for autonomy” is representative of the ways in which agency operates in the Fordist era and should not be overlooked or trivialized.

Annotation: Anne Anlin Cheng’s “The Melancholy of Race’ (2001)

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Cheng, Anne Anlin. “The Melancholy of Race.” The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 3-29. Print.

In her essay Cheng emphasizes the need to explore the implications of racial grief. She asserts that historically there has been too much reliance on “material or quantifiable terms to articulate that injury,” problematically overlooking its more immaterial, psychic ramifications (6). Cheng suggests that in light of the dominant white ideal that pervades US society, those individuals who cannot fight within that paradigm must undergo a “painful negotiation…at some point if not continually, with the demands of that social ideality” (7). Cheng further articulates the need to explore how people are themselves deeply implicit and invested in maintaining certain racial categories.

Cheng also offers a helpful discussion of Freud’s essay, “Mourning and Melancholia.” She asserts that Freud defines “mourning” as “a healthy response to loss; it is finite in character and accepts substitution” whereas “melancholia” is “pathological; it is interminable in nature and refuses substitution (7, 8). But Cheng emphasizes that even as the melancholic subject is obsessed with what it has lost, it also consumes and obtains nourishment from that loss, which becomes subsumed as a part of its identity. She asserts that “melancholia does not simply denote a condition of grief but is rather, a legislation of grief” (8). Cheng, notes, however, that feeding on this loss is painful, inspiring within the melancholic subject, feelings of “resentment and degradation for the lost object with which he or she is identifying” (9). Cheng goes on to describe the complex psychic dynamics of the melancholic subject: “First, the melancholic must deny loss as loss in order to sustain the fiction of possession. Second, the melancholic would have to make sure that the ‘object’ never returns, for such a return would surely jeopardize the cannibalistic project” (9).

She accentuates that this configuration of melancholia is helpful in understanding “American racial dynamics.” Cheng suggests, for example, that the dominant white ideal of America excludes but simultaneously retains racialized “others” as “lost” to true “American” identity. These racialized others are also “uneasily digested by…American nationality” because they reveal perverse contradiction in the ideas of freedom and democracy the United States was founded on in the first place (10). Cheng ultimately asserts the productivity of melancholia as a theoretical tool because it “accounts for the guilt and denial of guilt, the blending of shame and omnipotence in the racist imaginary” (12). She also critiques reductive declarations of internalized racial, ethnic self-hatred, accentuating that the psychic dynamics of minority figures are much more complex and often fraught with conflicting, contradictory emotions. Cheng particularly turns to literature to conduct her study because as “cultural texts” they are especially helpful in “teas[ing] out the complex social etiology behind the phenomenon of racial grief” (15).

Cheng emphasizes that analysis of melancholia with respect to raced subjects must extend beyond the term’s vernacular association with sadness. She defines “racial melancholia” as “a sign of rejection and as a psychic strategy in response to that rejection” (20). For the purposes of her study, Cheng focuses on the racialization of African Americans in the United States as well as Asian Americans because they occupy an uncanny place in the history of American racial dynamics, falling outside the Manichean black-white politics of race. Cheng further notes that the socio-economic success that Asian Americans have achieved in the US has problematically precluded the study of them as raced subjects, fueling a potentially more insidious form of racism. She asserts that “the racialization of Asian Americans is some ways more apparently melancholic than that of African Americans in American history in the sense that the history of virulent racism directed against Asians and Asian Americans has been at once consistently upheld and denied” through configurations such as the “yellow peril” and “model minority” stereotype (23).

Cheng ultimately claims that viewing race through the framework of melancholia productively reveals its instability “indebtedness to the dis-identity it is also claiming” (24). She emphasizes that an examination of the psychical implications of racial injury will allow for a new politics of loss that moves beyond simple identity politics to also embrace dis-identity politics and eventually open up new pathways to assert individual agency. In this way, Cheng suggests that we can resolve the troubling acceptance of African American or Asian American as identity labels, which simultaneously recalls a history of racialization.

Finally Cheng concludes her essay by asserting the value of psychoanalysis as a theoretical framework of her study, insisting that “the politics of race has always spoken in the language of psychology” (28). She further emphasizes that “the psychoanalytic perspective teaches us to be attentive to the disjunctive and retroactive hauntedness of history,” which can be wielded for political action today” (28).

Protected: Annotation: Walter Johnson’s “Between the Prices” (1999)

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Protected: Annotation: Walter Johnson’s “The Chattel Principle” (1999)

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Protected: Annotation: Walter Johnson’s “Introduction: A Person with a Price” to Soul By Soul (1999)

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Annotation: bell hooks’ “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance” (1999)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “The Productive, Political Power of Love in Nina Revoyr’s Southland.”

hooks, bell. “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance.” Black Looks Race and Representation. New York: South End Press, 1999. 9-20. Print.

“In her essay, bell hooks critiques how students and scholars are more interested and comfortable with discussing “black self-hatred,” how blacks have desired and “tried to attain whiteness,” rather than the possibility of “loving blackness” (10). She emphasizes the need to deeply interrogate and move beyond this “black obsession with whiteness,” which merely focuses attention on oppressive white power structures and hierarchies, in some ways reinforcing their influence over black lives, rather than investing effort to articulate new modes of seeing and understanding the black body that can be truly liberating (11). hooks asserts that the most effective means of combating white supremacy, both external and internalized racism, is for individuals to love blackness, to not simply love themselves in spite of their blackness but because of their blackness. But she also notes the extreme difficulties that lie in the process as the structures of white supremacy continue to “seduce black folks with the promise of mainstream success if only [they] are willing to negate the value of blackness” (17). While hooks admits that black people who accept the status quo and conform to whiteness, will probably achieve greater material rewards and upward mobility, she emphasizes that this conception that one has to deny blackness and black culture in order to attain such levels of socio-economic success will only precipitate a precarious crisis in black identity.

hooks ultimately suggests the need for people learn how to love themselves and how that act of loving can serve as a real form of political resistance because it directly challenges the logics of white supremacist thought, which cast blackness as that which should not and cannot be loved. Revoyr’s Southland takes on this political project, as Jackie Ishida learns how to love herself, her history, her people, and the members of the black LA community who she realizes are also part of her family.

Annotation: Sibylle Fischer’s Modernity Disavowed (2004)

This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Sansay’s Secret History, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

Fischer, Sibylle. “Introduction.” Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 1-38. Print.

In the “Introduction” to her book, Fischer interrogates the “silence” surrounding the Haitian Revolution as it was widely censored from official discourses, even from the presses of Cuba just a short distance away from Saint Domingue. She emphasizes the need to analyze these gaps within the historical archive, which requires an interdisciplinary approach and a transatlantic framework that “mirror[s] the hemispheric scope of the slave trade” because crucial information is lost through the fragmentation of academic specialization and attempts to force that information into nationalistic paradigms (2). Fischer accentuates that such an approach reveals that these silences were not absolute and news of Haiti did travel through merchants and traders in informal port systems (4). She also critiques how “Caribbean plantation and the political upheavals in the colonies rarely make it into the canonical histories of modernity and revolution” (7). Fisher emphasizes that above all sugar production in the Caribbean functioned as an emblematic machine of modern capitalist economy, where industrial agriculture was predicated on the exploitation of human labor through the transatlantic slave trade (12). She ultimately characterizes the Caribbean slave economy as a “modernity disavowed.” Fischer takes care to distinguish the concept of “disavowal” from popular discourses about trauma, which merely locates events in the realm of the unthinkable and unspeakable because “disavowal” “forces us to identify what is being disavowed, by whom, and for what reason” (38).

Fischer’s framework of “disavowal” will greatly inform my own reading of Secret History as I examine how Sansay offers a revision of the history of the Haitian Revolution, calling attention to the “disavowal” of female oppression. Fischer also notes the important role women played in abolitionism and how “the language of antislavery was taken up literally by the suffrage movement” (17). This historical connection between the fight for black and female rights is especially helpful in understanding Sansay’s text and how the juxtaposition of the domestic narrative with the political race narrative is not entirely jarring or unfounded. As Fischer suggests, racial and sexual oppression was deeply, almost inextricably intertwined within the institution of slavery, as masters maintained complete “personal domination” over their slaves (17).